by Larry Leutwyler
Chaplain, Omega House
Love in the Valley
It is easy to feel the love of God when you have a mountain top experience. It seems harder to feel God’s love while in the valley of suffering and death.
Three years ago, when I began as chaplain for Omega House, I made it a point to look for God in the midst of whatever was happening.
While there, I have witnessed so many acts of love that it is impossible to list them all.
One day a resident and one of the nurses were surprised to see each other. They were former long term companions who had broken up. They had not seen each other for years. They forgave each other and the nurse lovingly took care of the resident to the end of his days.
One night, I prayed with two teenage children while we held the hand of their dying mother. Their mother died while we were praying. Afterwards, we talked and even though they were going through intense emotional pain and grief, it was also very obvious that they loved their mother intensely.
A young resident had suddenly become blind from an AIDS related condition. Last week he was ready to just give up taking medication and simply let death come quicker. This week, his mother flew in to see him and he started sitting up and carrying on conversations. Right now, he is appreciating life while appreciating the love of his mother.
Many days, I have heard residents talk about those they loved who have died before them. Sometimes, toward the end, they will call out to their deceased loved ones.
For me, God is discovered through these actions of love. If God is love, we glimpse God through learning about love and what love can endure.
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:12.
Lucious was a transgender female who arrived at Omega House from a local hospital. Lucious was initially unable to walk and could barely talk. It appeared that she could die at any moment. We prayed together.
Lucious did not die that night. Instead, she got better. Several blessings occurred in her life.
The first blessing was that of reconciliation. She had not seen her estranged parents for years. They were contacted and drove from Louisiana to see her. They made peace with one another.
The next blessing was that of generosity. Another resident bought dresses and a wig for Lucious. From that day on, Lucious dressed as female during every waking hour. She even performed on stage for a charity event.
Finally, Lucious found the blessings of falling in love. She had hopes of moving in with the one she loved but, unfortunately, she had a sudden downturn and died in April at the age of 35.
I can tell you that Lucious was very grateful for life. When she prayed with me, her prayers were heartfelt and sincere.
So, I guess the point of this story is that Lucious did not just die at Omega House. She did a lot of living and received a lot of blessings during the short time she was there.
Rudy had few possessions. Rudy did however, have a very generous heart.
Rudy insisted in coming to church with me. For almost two months without fail, Rudy would be waiting on Sunday morning for me to pick him up.
On the last Sunday of his life, I stopped to pick Rudy up for church but he was too sick to go. He had a racking cough and was struggling to breath. After I prayed with Rudy, and got up to leave, he surprised me by handing over an offering envelope he had evidently saved from the previous week. Rudy was poor. He had lived in homeless shelters. The amount of the offering came from a generous heart.
When I saw Rudy later that week he was significantly weaker. His Bible was open to Ecclesiastes next to him in bed. The book of Ecclesiastes urges readers to focus on the eternal rather than the temporary things of this world.
Rudy had gotten to know other residents well at Omega House. There were two in particular that Rudy genuinely loved. Rudy asked me to specifically pray for them and everyone else that was sick. Rudy then prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for his son.
Finally, Rudy had me turn around. Rudy started chanting in Spanish. With his finger, he traced a word on the back of my shirt.
I have no idea what Rudy wrote, and Rudy became too weak to explain. The word is left to the Spirit. I imagine it came out of the same generous heart that had just prayed for others.
He was an avowed atheist. When I walked into his room and introduced myself as the chaplain, he looked at me and arched his eyebrows but smiled.
I asked if this was a good time for a visit, and he responded that I was welcome if I didn’t try to convert him.
One of the first things he said was that, if he died with any shred of faith left, he would like to donate it to others because he had no use for it. That was a beginning of a very interesting conversation and a couple after that.
As we were talking about his past and his present, he suggested that we have a “dialogue prayer.” I told him I had never heard that term. He said, “Rather than praying to a God, why don’t I just say a single word or two and you respond in the same way.”
He began with the words “Christian Hypocrites.” I responded with, “Me too”.” We went on in a sort of free word association. It actually turned into an interesting word play. We continued for a while and then he said, amen. Afterward we had a pleasant conversation until his voice weakened and his eyes closed.
As I got up to leave, he jerked his eyes open and asked me to promise I would return and visit again. As I left, he said, “Don’t be a hypocrite.” I made sure to visit.
She doesn’t believe in God. She really doesn’t even think about the question because to her
God seems irrelevant.
I ask her what brings her comfort in this life.
As I listen to her, I listen to hear what she values and cherishes and then I try to provide an opportunity to talk about any fears, dreams, or concerns.
Instead of a prayer, we talk about hope and the hopes we share.
She was a lovely woman with eyes of pale blue. Too soon she died. She died surrounded by the comfort of her mother’s presence. She died surrounded by the comfort of those employees and volunteers at Omega House who cared for her. She died in the comfort of not having any physical pain.
Those were hopes fulfilled.
Words Connected to the Heart
As he speaks the words, his face transforms with deep emotion. Tears form and roll down his cheeks. The words had taken root in a place where pain and hope dwell. When spoken, they pull from that well and cannot be said without the heart bleeding.
Deryl speaks from memory these words:
“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you.” Exodus 15:26
Five years ago, Deryl was in a car travelling home on I-10 from San Antonio. He was almost home. When next he opened his eyes, he is in bed with family and friends surrounding him. He is told that he was in an accident and has been in a coma for forty seven days. He cannot move his right side.
Now, five years later, Deryl continues to work hard to make his hope of walking again a reality. Even when he is not at therapy, Daryl works out strenuously. Deryl’s hope of walking is based on the reality of hard work.
We pray and he blesses me as I leave his apartment. As I leave him in his wheelchair, I hear his radio playing praise music.
Poetry, Prayers, and Porn
His delicate skin was parchment white.
His veins appeared drawn on with blue ink.
At one time, he planned on being an Episcopal priest but, at the time, could not reconcile being gay.
Now he was not sure of anything except the value of life.
He refused prayers but asked that I bring him the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.
I brought him the book and we read together some of his favorite prayers. Then, at his request, we read about eunuchs in his favorite commentary. I left him head bowing while he read the Book of Common Prayer.
The next time I saw him, he was very weak and restless and unable to talk. A friend was in the room praying the rosary and I prayed with her.
On the shelf was his extensive collection of classic porn movies next to the Revised Standard Version. Next to that was his collection of poetry from Wordsworth and Keats, and the Book of Common Prayer.
Just like all of us, he was a mixture of life experiences that made him unique and individual. He was a poetic and sensual man well studied in religion. He had not made his life a simple harmony, but instead a complex and sometimes dissonant symphony. It all seemed to belong.
Les of Love
Les and I spoke about religion often. Les said he was unable to believe that God exists. He told people he was an atheist. However, Les enjoyed prayers.
One day, I went to His room and he looked up at me and said, “I can believe that God is Love.” From then on, I ended our prayers, “In the name of Love.”
Les was initially expected to live less than three weeks. He lived almost three years. Two days before he died, I walked into his room. He told me that he was not afraid to die. He told me that he wanted to live fully every moment of life he has left. That day, he did not ask for prayers for anyone else. Instead, he asked me to pray just for him. We prayed that he live life fully every moment. I ended the prayer “in the name of love” and Les said, “in the name of Jesus.”
Mercy was on a ventilator tube and unresponsive when I entered the room. I gently said her name as I took her hand in mine. She did not show any facial expression. She appeared to have already slipped into a coma. I looked for any movement so that I could reflect back to her what she was doing. There was no movement. There was no sound except the sound of the ventilator tube and rhythmic breathing.
Mercy was from Nigeria. Her family had dropped her off at Omega but never came back to visit. The admission form indicated that she was a Pentecostal Christian. I don’t know if she understood English..
Sometimes people still attempt to communicate by moving a hand or a finger or by making facial expressions. After I said her name and introduced myself, I looked for any movement. She had no facial expression. There was no moaning or movement.
I wondered what was going on deep within her. I wondered if she had any coherent thoughts and if she felt any emotional distress. Since she was a Pentecostal, I imagined that she did have certain beliefs about the Holy Spirit.
Believing that often the sense of hearing is the last to go, I offered up a verbal prayer. Part of the prayer was that the Holy Spirit intercede for her so that, even when she was unable to find the words to consciously pray, the Spirit would help her commune with God. I also asked for God’s blessings on her family and everyone that loved her.
I never had a chance to have a discussion with Mercy. I wonder about her experiences in life. I am grateful that God made a place in this world for her. I am grateful to recognize that she is unique and there has never been anyone like her before. I am also grateful for meeting her and think that, perhaps there is a communication beyond our known senses.
After the prayer, I looked and she seemed to have a peaceful, slight smile on her face that I had not noticed before. Possibly, I was just viewing her differently after the prayer.
Mercy died shortly after my visit. Although she now cannot see or hear with her physical body, I can imagine her communing with God.
BSN provides chaplaincy services to persons with HIV and was privileged to minister to Paul who was in his early twenties. Paul, a member of a large denomination which disapproves of homosexuality, decided that death was preferable to the stigma of being gay and having HIV. He was not tested for HIV until he became very ill and then kept the diagnosis to himself and hid his HIV medication. One day, he threw all of his medication away so no one would find them if he had to go to the hospital. He also stopped going to the clinic because he was afraid someone would recognize his car.
Paul became deathly ill and was admitted to the Hospice. There he made sure that his records listed him as heterosexual and he refused to tell anyone how to contact his family. He became so uncomfortable with his status that one day he checked himself out of Hospice and has not been heard from since.
While he was at Omega House,
only one friend visited.
That friend tried to cure him
with positive thinking
and herbal remedies.
but stopped visiting
when the cures didn’t work.
He never told his mother he was even sick.
I walk in his room.
His graceful smile lights up the room
his blue eyes are clear.
He is very weak
but very kind.
He radiates joy
in a way most healthy people
I ask, how his spiritual
life is going?
He tells me he is not religious.
His faith is personal and private and very
important to him.
He is not afraid of death,
he says with conviction.
This life is but a phase.
We are all here only a brief moment,
and we move to another place.
He is ready he says.
His heart is full of love
and faith in his place
in this world.
People who meet him here
He is certainly worthy of love.
Surely other people love him, too,
but he didn’t tell them he was sick.
The 6 year old
learned to calmly call 911
and wait for the ambulance
to take his dad.
The 6 year old had done it before
several times. His
single dad was the only
parent he had known.
checked into Omega House
and gave his son
He said goodbye
so that his son would not find him
the father and I
thanked God for the son
thanked God for the relationship
and asked for God’s protection
and blessing so that the son
would grow in God’s grace.
He did not want to die.
He had a amazing,
tenacious grip on life
A matter of faith for him
he kept fighting
until the end.
As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote:
he did not go gently into that good night
he raged, raged against the dying of the light.
He was rushed from Omega House
to the hospital
poked and prodded
the treatment was very painful
he put on his battle face
and harsh battle voice
He could have chosen to go peaceful
into that good night
but did not.
We continued to visit
and pray together
He would always pray
for God’s will
to be done.
But that did not mean
he stopped fighting.
Although it was painful
for family and friends
to see his struggles and agony,
His life was worth the struggle
His struggle reflected the value of life.
When it came time,
he realized that he no longer
needed to fight
when he was being invited
by Christ to step over
Although he was not a member of Bering,
his family and friends
chose Bering for the memorial service
and they are very grateful
and I am very grateful
for the chance to witness
and know Billy, the fighter.
He spent his life in jail.
From his youth
He is a big man,
a strong man,
a tough man.
Now he has had
Now his own body
in a bed…
in a small room.
Unable to speak.
unable to cry.
unable to turn on his own.
is not near.
We pray to the One who set the
We pray for the Holy Spirit
of freedom into his heart,
even though he cannot speak,
even though he may not think of the words,
The Spirit may intercede for him.
Free his spirit.
Throw open the prison door.
and set him free.
Larry, I bought a pack of cigarettes
and I smoked some
please pray that God forgive me for smoking
Here she is dying
skin and bones
yet, worried about smoking.
after a week of
being in a coma
she heard my footsteps
outside the door
“I know those footsteps” she cried.
“Come in here, Larry”
She was alert
she asked for prayer
we prayed together
Then she sat straight up in bed
raised her arms above her head
and cried out
Praise you, Jesus
Praise you, Jesus.
That was the last time I saw her alive.
She died soon after
with her sister at her side.
Bone weary today
a mere two hours
at the hospice
And I am bone weary
I see his face
His eyes luminous,
beautiful smile in welcome,
he grips my hand strongly
his eyes look beyond the room –
a far distance
his face draws slack.
He is easing
out of his body
Do you have pain? I ask.
He shakes his head
He grips my hand harder
He twists and moans again.
but groaning and moaning
No distress on his face.
A beautiful smile
His body is fading.
His mind is fading –
the light is coming.
Romans 8:26 ” The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself
intercedes for us
that words cannot express.”
The Final Treasure
Tom died this week.
He had been at Omega House for a short time.
He arrived with two boxes of treasures.
His treasures were diplomas, certificates, and licenses.
None of these were from prestigious schools.
All were service oriented.
As his illness progressed, Tom became confused.
He thought his family was stealing everything he had left at home.
He became disoriented.
I met to pray with him anyway.
After my prayer, I paused.
Then he surprised me by praying himself.
He prayed one of the most coherent and beautiful prayers I had ever heard.
It was about me.
I carry that treasure.